Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two Different Kinds of Terrifying...

A movie came out in 1973 that scared the ever-loving crap out of people: The Exorcist. Based on William Peter Blatty's novel, this film about demonic possession was a cultural phenomenon that captured worldwide attention and ultimately spawned four sequels. (Yes, I can count: Exorcist II, Exorcist III, and two vastly different versions of the fourth film, Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning.) If you somehow have never seen The Exorcist, I can vouch for its scariness. Hell, I'm an atheist and that movie gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's a well-made movie about a subject that, if true, would be the most nightmarish thing imaginable.

The Exorcist is supposedly based on a true story. Well, kind of. It's based on a book of the same name by William Peter Blatty that's supposedly based on a true story. Now, while the book is pretty good (There was a copy in the vacation house where I stayed in North Carolina last summer), there's no compelling evidence to suspect that the event it's based on had any sort of supernatural component. Indeed, there are pretty good reasons to suspect that it didn't. That's fine, though - knowing that the all crazy supernatural stuff in the movie didn't actually take place doesn't make the film any less enjoyable.

That being said, there's one film on a similar subject that is decidedly less enjoyable precisely because it is based on something that happened. Film-savvy readers may have already guessed, but I'm talking about The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Aside from just not being very good in the first place, The Exorcism of Emily Rose glorifies and supernaturalizes as very real, very tragic event that happened in Germany in the mid 1970s. The film version tells the story a 19 year-old woman (played by the sister from that show Dexter) whose apparent fits of epilepsy turn out to be an actual demonic possession. She eventually dies after a drawn-out exorcism and the priest involved is charged with negligent homicide. I won't spoil the ending, but eventually the supernatural elements are confirmed for the audience and everyone is meant to go home thinking that even though the girl is dead, her soul is in a better place.

Bullshit. The truth of the matter is far from the faith-affirming Hollywood bollocks presented in the film.

In 1976, a 23 year-old German girl named Anneliese Michel died an agonizing death as the result of a months-long exorcism performed by a pair of Catholic priests at the behest of her parents. Anneliese was a very devout Catholic whose life took a turn for the worse after she began having "demonic visions" while praying. This appears to have occurred sometime around 1970. Shortly thereafter, she began having seizures and she and her family became increasingly convinced that she was possessed, especially after the anti-epilepsy drug Tegretol failed to halt her seizures. (I have an epileptic client at work who takes the drugs Tegretol, Diazepam, and Kepra multiple times a day and still has seizures regularly. One of my other epileptic clients routinely hears voices before and after having seizures.) There were several attempts made to get the Catholic Church to order an exorcism, but these requests were rebuffed until 1975, when a local bishop granted the family's request and dispatched a pair of priests to perform the ritual. It is probably worth noting that The Exorcist was released theatrically in Germany in 1974 and caused an enormous upsurge in claims of occult phenomena there.

Anneliese during happy times.

The exorcism went on for eleven months, during which time Anneliese stopped taking all of her medications (in addition to anticonvulsants, she was being treated with at least one medication used to control schizophrenia). During the exorcism itself Anneliese made a point of stringently fasting (apparently dropping to a mere 68 pounds) and performing repeated genuflections (dropping to one's knees). Normally genuflections aren't meant to be any sort of self-flagellation or anything like that, but reports indicate that Anneliese performed the action so many times in the final months of her life that she severely damaged her knees. On the final day of her life she was so exhausted that her parents had to raise and lower her from the floor because she no longer had the strength perform the motion on her own.

Dehydrated, suffering from pneumonia, fever, and severe malnutrition , Anneliese Michel died on July 1st, 1976. (32 years ago yesterday.) Both of her parents and the two exorcists were ultimately charged with negligent homicide in her horrible death, though they were found guilty only of manslaughter and inexplicably were never sent to prison.

Anneliese during the exorcism that ultimately led to her death.

Take a good, long look at the picture above this paragraph. There's nothing inspirational, beautiful, or life-affirming about that. I wish that just a picture from a horror movie, but it's not. It's a picture of a young woman who's close to death because she's being put through an anachronistic religious ceremony rather than receiving treatment for her mental illness. It's an obscenity. Some web commentators have noted that Anneliese wanted to undergo the exorcism, to which I answer that she was an untreated schizophrenic! Her mental state left her incapable of distinguishing her hallucinations from reality or realizing that she was having seizures rather than being attacked by demons. It is to be expected that she would behave in an irrational, potentially self-destructive manner. The fault doesn't belong with Anneliese, but with those around her: Her parents failed to look out for her because of their own religious delusions and ultimately the Church (Which obviously knew better at some point because it turned down several prior exorcism requests) sanctioned a ritual that only strengthened the family's collective fantasy and finally killed Anneliese.

Even though The Exorcist is a pretty frightening movie, what scares me far more is the idea that even in modern, first-world countries people still get so caught up in Dark Ages supernatural fantasies that they're willing to put their lives on the line to see them played out.

Notes - Vaguely woo-woo anthropologist Felicitas Goodman wrote a book about Anneliese Michel that is the principle source for details about the case. For a disturbing taste of just how people today are completely missing the point of the entire episode, try reading the some of the Amazon reader reviews. Goodman herself was thoroughly convinced that the possession was real. Also available are videos on Youtube that feature photo montages of Anneliese set to recordings of her speaking in "demonic voices" during the exorcism. One reviewer noted that "it's hard to debunk the idea of possession while" viewing the video, but no, it's not. The physical deterioration is purely explicable in terms of her fasting and the exertions of the ceremony, and anyone who's spent any time working with the mentally ill can tell you that scary, shrieky voices happen daily with those kinds of patients. Anneliese was a schizophrenic young woman who went off her medication. There's no need to look for a supernatural explanation for her having a screaming fit under those circumstances.

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